Hail to the Squire
By Tony Kornheiser
By 10:45, 15 minutes before the scheduled start of yesterday's memorial service for Jack Kent Cooke, the pews in the Trinity Episcopal Church were full, and there were people lined up in the aisles, standing along the walls.
That's every sports owner's dream, isn't it? To be completely sold out, with standing room only, and a waiting list to get in. (Although maybe not at your own funeral.)
Hundreds of invited guests had come to celebrate Jack Kent Cooke's life, though as his son John Kent Cooke remarked, "It is an impossible task to celebrate his life because he did all the celebrating himself. And it took 84 years to do it."
Joe Gibbs came in from Charlotte. Paul Tagliabue, Wellington Mara and Leon Hess from New York. Jerry Jones from Dallas. Bill Bidwill from Phoenix. Jimmy Irsay from Indianapolis. Dan Rooney from Pittsburgh. Art Modell from Baltimore. Football people from far and wide, joining Redskins players such as John Riggins, Joe Theismann, Art Monk, Joe Jacoby and Darrell Green; Washington insiders such as Dick Darman, Richard Helms and Jack Valenti. All driving west under a sapphire blue sky on Route 50 to Upperville, past rolling green meadows and large, stone houses hundreds of years old, passing by Snickersville Road and Brigadoon Farm, plunging deep into Virginia hunt country, with the Blue Ridge Mountains so near on the horizon you felt you could reach out and touch them.
It's hard to believe this would have been The Squire's choice, to be memorialized on some windswept plain, so far from the bright lights and the big city. (Yesterday was probably the biggest gas-up boom day in the Middleburg Exxon station's history.) I'd have guessed that The Squire would have wanted to be carried through the streets of Washington like Eva Peron, and marched right out to Raljon to be buried on the 50-yard line. It's hard to believe he's dead. He was so alive, he was the most alive man I've ever known.
"Dad would have loved this day," John Kent Cooke said. "This tribute by his family and his friends, but especially his football players, who he loved so."
Riggins, Theismann, Moseley and Monk. Ken Harvey, Brian Mitchell, Monte Coleman. Jacoby, Grimm, Bostic, Lachey and May. Olkewicz, Orr, Frerotte and Mann. Tim Johnson, Terry Allen, Ed Simmons and Mark Boutte. Joe Patton, Jamie Asher and Sean Gilbert. They towered above the civilians. You could pick them out by their athletic carriages, their military jaws, their muscles bursting through their jackets; there's no football player alive, even in middle age, whose jacket doesn't seem at least two sizes too tight. It's odd somehow, seeing these players in their dark, formal suits. You grow accustomed to seeing them in burgundy and gold; they don't seem to be made for such somber moments. (By the way, has anybody seen Coco? You don't think this is a Pharoah deal, and they buried her with him, do you?)
The old church had a Sunday-afternoon-at-RFK football feel to it, with all the players and all the familiar faces. So many of these people greeted each other in the owner's box on fall Sundays for 20 years, that instead of playing church hymns at the start of the service, they might better have played the national anthem.
I sat near Abe Pollin during the service. Pollin had known Cooke for over 30 years. Pollin helped broker the deal by which Cooke bought the L.A. Lakers from Bob Short. And Cooke helped Pollin secure the rights to Washington's NHL franchise some years later. More than anyone else in that church Pollin knew what it was like to be Jack Kent Cooke; Abe Pollin and Jack Kent Cooke are Washington sports. And yet they couldn't be further apart in terms of lifestyle and public persona. The Squire was high octane all the way. Pollin is so low profile, he's under the radar. Pollin sat unobtrusively near the back of the church next to his wife, Irene. The Squire would never have sat in the back of anything but a limousine. Are you kidding me? Jack would have had two bearers carry him up to the front row.
The service was short, over well before noon; they could almost have done it at a halftime. Four people eulogized The Squire, beginning with his brother, Donald. (His brother! Who knew?) Donald Cooke kept his remarks to a couple of minutes. This may be a Cooke family trait: Don't waste other people's time, and by all means don't let them waste yours. Donald spoke briefly about Jack's love for the Redskins, then thanked everyone for listening, and sat down almost before everyone knew he'd stood up.
Next was Milton Gould, Jack's long-time lawyer and friend. "I have stood in many courtrooms with Jack over the last 30 or 40 years," Gould said, getting a big laugh. "He was always right behind me, telling me what to say." Alluding to The Squire's obsession with correct language, Gould said he wrote down his remarks. "I didn't want to take any chances because he might be up there listening, and I might dangle a participle and I'd hear his voice correcting me!" Gould marveled at how cultured, how scholarly and how well-read The Squire was, especially considering he was a high school dropout. "His was an incessant search for self-improvement," Gould said admiringly. "He was the only client I ever had who could detect a split infinitive and had the gall to bring it to the attention of the perpetrator."
Shirley Povich, dean of American sportswriters, explained the cultural geography inside The Squire's box, saying, "In Washington, where you sat told where you stood." And he said, in praise of Cooke, something that was said of Thomas Jefferson, "He will have successors, but he will not be replaced," words that could truly be said of Shirley Povich as well.
The last speaker was John Kent Cooke, who has the eyes of the city on him all of the time now. Like his father and his uncle, John was brief and to the point. "Many have said, kindly, that they wish my father could have lived to see the completion of his last great accomplishment," John said, referring to the new stadium. "I say to you that he saw it more clearly than we all will this coming fall. He envisioned it. He fought for it, and he built it in a hurry. It was his creation. It is his stadium, and it will bear his name. Let this be his final tribute."
Fittingly, those were the last words spoken of Jack Kent Cooke. As "Ode To Joy" was played (and really, it should have been "Hail To The Redskins," played by a single saxophonist, like at Glenn Brenner's funeral), the mourners filed out. John Kent Cooke walked purposefully down the center aisle of the great stone church staring straight ahead. Only once did he shift his gaze. As he approached Abe Pollin, John smiled and reached out to pat Pollin's arm, in recognition. And as I watched I thought the special bond of Washington sports patriarchs that once connected Abe and Jack had now comfortably passed on to Abe and John.